hroughout her career of more than forty years, Corelli’s reflection on the aesthetic is a permanent and serious pursuit. Her numerous articles, speeches, interviews, letters, and all her 24 full-length novels feature theoretical discourses on aesthetic principles or introduce artists as characters who express their thoughts on art.
Corelli’s most important books dedicated to questions of aesthetic production, however, are The Silver Domino, or Side Whispers, Social and Literary – published anonymously in 1893 – and Free Opinions Freely Expressed on Certain Phases of Modern Social Life and Conduct of 1905. The former consists of Corelli’s polemical reviews of the literature of her day, including discussions of the now canonical literature of Tennyson, Browning, Trollope, Swinburne, Hardy, Stevenson and Kipling, and the ephemeral literature of now forgotten authors like William Black, William Edward Norris, F. C. Philips and Edna Lyall. In the discussion of popular female authors like Mrs Henry Wood, Mrs Humphry Ward, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Rhoda Broughton, Ouida and the New Woman novelists, Corelli (masquerading as the Silver Domino) also assesses apparently objectively her own merits as a writer. The Silver Domino addresses mainly social issues, such as the role of women, Christianity and education in modern society, but these are combined and related to theories of art in Corelli’s discussion of the woman artist. Free Opinions also includes essays on the nature of literature and the literary profession, among which the essays “‘Imaginary’ Love” on idealism, “The Responsibility of the Press” on criticism and “The Power of the Pen” on various topics including contemporary literature, popularity, the readership, the self-image of the writer and the moral influence s/he exerts on the public, are particularly notable.
In her discussions of art Corelli reveals a hard-headed pragmatism on the one hand, which revolves around issues of money (copyright, sales figures, royalties, translations), popularity (and adverse press criticism), and considerations of her readership. Paradoxically, these pragmatic considerations combine with an aesthetic of high transcendence: the discussion of concepts like inspiration, imagination, the ideal, truthfulness, vitality, and the idea of the author as creator reveal the other side of Corelli’s aesthetic as a derivative post-Romantic aesthetic manipulated for a populist context.
In The Defence of Poetry, Shelley defines poetry (in the broadest sense) as “‘the expression of the imagination’” (277). Imagination is an original creative source within the poet, which brings all sense impressions into harmony with the individual in question but also with the ideal and universal forms, which underlie or transcend concrete particulars. Shelley calls these “the eternal, the infinite, and the one” (279). Only the imagination can create a relationship between the world of ideal truth and the world as we know it: “A poem”, writes Shelley, “is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth” (281).
Corelli based her literary aesthetic upon principles reminiscent of Shelley – including the imagination, truth, the ideal, and the author as creator – which have the one aim to provide a transcendental dimension to art. However, her discussion of transcendental concepts lacks the philosophical and aesthetic depth of Shelley’s Defence, and her exploration of these principles is a rhetorical strategy rather than a signifying process. Certain procedures denote the popular author: these include the use of exemplification instead of explication, repetition and hyperbole to signal meaning, polemical arguments, a general haziness and simplification of both argument and terms, and the translation of aesthetic principles into a historically fixed, contemporary context. In Corelli’s critical writing, post-Romantic concepts become what John Barrell and Donald Davie would call “fiduciary symbols”. Rather than depending on an agreement as to the meaning of words prior to their utterance in any particular instance, these words depend on the reader’s willingness to trust that they do have the same meaning.
Corelli’s discussion of truth is a case in point. The ‘Sign of the Times’ speech, delivered to the Scottish Society of Literature and Art in Glasgow in January 1903, shows how the concept of truth remains a signifier without an accompanying signified in Corelli’s discussion of art. Her opening remarks, “[t]he greatest, strongest, most splendid and hopeful ‘sign of the times’ is the advancing and resistless tide of Truth”, both in life and art (qtd. in Bell/ Coates 278), shows how Corelli employs enumeration and hyperbolical expressions to signal transcendental meaning. The strategy to overdetermine becomes obvious when Corelli criticises the superficiality of her own age and repeatedly calls for truth: “Truth in religion, Truth in Life, Truth in work.” (qtd. in Bell/ Coates, 278) The search for truth will eventually be successful, promises Corelli, but the concept “Truth” and its meaning for the context of literature is never given a content: populist rhetorical strategies replace the elaboration of meaning. The capitalisation of the first letter signals a popular strategy even on the level of typography: Corelli tries to reclaim transcendental essence through methods other than signification.
The essay “The Vanishing Gift” is entirely devoted to the discussion of the imagination. Here, Corelli vaguely defines imagination as “a great many things”, including “a sense of beauty and harmony”, “an instinct of poetry and of prophecy”, and “an immortal sense of memory which is always striving to recall the beautiful things the Soul has lost” (Free Opinions, 288-89). These concepts and terms are again reminiscent of Shelley’s Defence, but they are only evoked, never explored, related to or differentiated from each other. In the end, Corelli appropriates the aesthetic concepts for her own ends: the transcendental concept of imagination helps her to discuss an issue which is specifically and exclusively contemporary and which lies at the heart of Corelli’s thinking and writing: the crisis of realism.
Halfway through the essay, Corelli argues that only those peoples whose culture shows that they are endowed with the gift of imagination, are ‘conscious of the Highest source of all creation’ (276). Quoting a passage from Wordsworth’s ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’, with which Corelli seemingly substantiates her insistence on the connection between man, his divine nature and God who gives man a soul, she now goes on to attack materialism as the opposite of imagination. Her aim becomes clearer when she subsequently argues that pure materialism is manifested in the contemporary God-less school of realism. The discussion of the imagination only serves as a pretext for a defence of transcendence in art, more precisely in the romance genre.
Barrell, John. Poetry, Language and Politics. Cultural Politics Ser. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988.
Marie Corelli. Free Opinions Freely Expressed on Certain Phases of Modern Social Life and Conduct. London: Constable, 1905.
Marie Corelli. The Silver Domino, or Side Whispers, Social and Literary. 12th ed. With Author's Note to this Issue. London: Lamley, 1893.
Marie Corelli. "The Vanishing Gift". Free Opinions Freely Expressed on Certain Phases of Modern Social Life and Conduct. London: Constable, 1905.
273-291. Rpt. of Corelli, Marie. The Vanishing Gift: An Address on the Decay of the Imagination. Delivered before the Philosophical Institution, Edinburgh on the Evening of 19 Nov. 1901. Edinburgh: The Philosophical Institution, n.d. .
Percy Bysshe Shelley. A Defence of Poetry. Shelley's Prose or The Trumpet of a Prophecy. Ed. with an Introduction and Notes David Lee Clark. New Preface Harold Bloom. New York: Fourth Estate, 1988. 275-297.
Coates, Thomas F. G., and R. S. Warren Bell. Marie Corelli: The Writer and the Woman. London: Hutchinson, 1903.
Last modified 15 April 2005